Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Index Previous Next
The next story is peculiarly interesting and original. I place it here, because we find three maidens busy spinning for a witch, as the Kalevide found them in the palace of Sarvik.
I AM going to tell you a beautiful story about what happened in the world in ancient days, when the meadows still resounded with the wise sayings of birds and beasts.
Once upon a time a lame old woman lived in a thick forest with her three beautiful daughters in a cottage hidden among the bushes. The three daughters were like three fair flowers, especially the youngest, who was as fair and delicate as a bean-flower, while the mother was like a withered stem. But there was none to look upon them in their loneliness save the sun p. 209 by day, and by night the moon and the starry eyes of heaven.
|Hot, like eyes of youthful lovers,|
Shone the sun upon their head-gear,
Shining on their coloured ribands,
Turning red their garment’s edges.
The old mother did not allow the girls to grow up in idleness, but kept them hard at work from morning to night spinning golden flax into thread. She gave the poor creatures no half-holidays on Thursdays or Saturdays, to provide themselves with anything they needed, and if they had not sometimes taken their needles in their hands by stealth at twilight or by moonlight, they would have possessed nothing. As soon as the distaff was empty, they were immediately furnished with a fresh supply, and the thread was required to be fine and regular. When the thread was finished, the old woman hid it away under lock and key in a secret chamber, where her daughters were never allowed to set foot. The spinners knew not how the golden flax came into the house, nor for what fabric the thread was used, for the mother never p. 210 replied to any questions on these subjects. The old woman went off on a journey two or three times every summer, and sometimes stayed away more than a week, but her daughters never knew where she went or what she brought back with her, for she always returned by night. When she was about to start, she always distributed as many days’ work to her daughters as she expected to be away.
The time came round again for the old woman to set out on her journey, and she gave out work to the girls for six days, repeating her usual admonition. “Children, do not let your eyes wander, and hold your fingers carefully, that the thread on the reel is not broken, or the glitter of the golden thread will vanish, and with it all your prospects of good fortune.” The girls laughed at this impressive warning, and before their mother had hobbled ten steps from the house on her crutches, all three began to make light of it. “There is no need of this useless warning, which is always repeated,” said the youngest sister. “The golden threads do not break with picking, much less with spinning.” The other sisters added, “It is equally unlikely that p. 211 the golden lustre should disappear.” The girls often ventured on such jests, but at last, after much merriment, tears rose to their eyes.
On the third day after their mother’s departure an unexpected event took place, which at first filled the daughters with alarm, and then with joy and happiness, but which was destined to cause them great trouble for a long time afterwards. A prince of the race of Kalev found himself separated from his companions while hunting in the forest,1 and wandered so far out of his way that he could no longer hear the barking of the dogs, nor the blowing of the horns to direct him aright. All his shouts met with no response but their own echo, or were lost in the thick bush. At length the prince, tired and disheartened, dismounted from his horse and lay down to rest under a bush, while he allowed his horse to stray about and graze at liberty. When the prince awoke from his sleep, the sun was already low in the heavens. As he was again wandering p. 212 backwards and forwards in search of the right road, he came at length to a small footpath which led him to the cottage of the lame old woman. The daughters were startled when they suddenly saw the stranger appear, whose like they had never before beheld. But they had finished their day’s work, and soon made friends with the visitor in the cool evening, feeling no inclination to retire to rest. And even after the elder sisters had lain down to sleep, the youngest still sat on the doorstep with their guest, and no sleep visited their eyes that night.
We will leave the pair to exchange confidences and sweet words in the light of the moon and stars, and will return to the huntsmen who had lost their master in the wood. They searched unweariedly through the whole forest, until the darkness of night put an end to their quest. After this, two men were sent to carry the sad news to the city, while the others camped for the night under a great pine-tree, ready to renew their search next day. The king immediately issued orders that a regiment of horse and a regiment of foot should march out next morning to seek for his lost son. The wood was so long and broad p. 213 that the search lasted till the third day, when horse-tracks were at length discovered which they followed till they reached the footpath which led to the cottage. The prince had not found the time pass heavily in company with the maiden, and he was but little disposed to go home. Before he departed, he gave her a secret promise that he would return in a short time, and take her with him, either with good-will or by force, and would make her his bride. But although the elder sisters had heard nothing of the matter, it nevertheless came to light in a way which nobody anticipated.
The youngest daughter was not a little astonished, when she sat down to work after the departure of the prince, to find that the thread on the spool was broken. She pieced the ends together, and set the wheel in rapid motion that she might make up for the time which she had lost with her lover, by diligent labour, but her heart fluttered at a strange and inexplicable event, for the gold thread had lost its former lustre. No terror and no sighs or tears could repair the mischief. According to an old proverb, misfortune springs into the house through the door, enters by the window, and p. 214 creeps in through any crevice which is not blocked up; and thus was it now.1
The old woman returned home by night; and as soon as she came into the room in the morning, she perceived at once that something was wrong. Her heart was filled with rage, and she called her daughters one by one, and severely cross-questioned them. They could not help themselves with lies and excuses, for lies have short legs, and the cunning old woman soon discovered what the village cock had crowed in her youngest daughter’s ear behind her back. Then the old woman began to curse so terribly that it seemed as if she wanted to darken heaven and earth with her imprecations. At last she threatened to break the neck of the young man and give his flesh to the wild beasts to devour if he ever ventured near the house again. The youngest daughter turned as red as a boiled crab, and found no rest by day nor sleep by night; for the thought oppressed her ever, that if the youth should return, he might meet his death. Early in the morning she stole quietly out of the house while her mother and sisters p. 215 were still asleep, to breathe the freshness of the dewy air. As luck would have it, she had learned the language of birds from her mother when she was still a child, and her knowledge now stood her in good stead. A raven was sitting in the branches of a pine-tree near, preening his feathers, and the maiden called to him, “Dear bird of wisdom, wisest of the race of birds, come to my aid.” “What help dost thou need?” answered the raven. The girl answered, “Fly from the wood afar into the country, until you reach a stately city with a royal palace. Endeavour to find the king’s son, and warn him of the misfortune which has come upon us.” Then she told the raven the whole story, from the breaking of the thread to the terrible threat of her mother, and begged that the youth would never return to the house. The raven promised to deliver her message, if he could find anybody who understood his language, and flew away immediately.
The mother would not allow the youngest daughter to work at the spinning-wheel again, but kept her busy winding the spun thread. This work would have been easier to the maiden than the other, but her mother’s incessant cursing and p. 216 scolding gave her no rest from morning to night. Any attempt to palliate her offence only made matters worse. If a woman’s heart overflows with anger and loosens her tongue, no power on earth can stay it.
Towards evening the voice of the raven was heard croaking on the summit of the pine-tree, and the tortured girl hurried out to inquire what news he brought. The raven had had the good fortune to meet with the son of a magician in the garden of the king, who perfectly understood the language of birds. To him the bird delivered the message of the maiden, and besought him to convey it to the prince. “Tell the raven,” said the prince to the magician’s son, “that he must return, and say to the maiden, ‘Sleep not on the ninth night, for a deliverer will then appear to rescue the chick from the claws of the hawk.’ ” They gave the raven a piece of meat as a reward for his message and to strengthen his wings, and then sent him back again. The maiden thanked the bird for his news, but concealed his message carefully in her own bosom, so that the others heard nothing of it. But as the ninth day approached her heart grew ever heavier, for she dreaded p. 217 lest some unexpected mischance might yet ruin all.
When the ninth night came, and the mother and daughters had retired to rest, the youngest sister stole from the house on tip-toe, and sat down on the grass under a tree to wait for her lover. Her heart was full of mingled hope and fear. The cock had already crowed twice, but there was not a step nor a voice to be heard in the wood. But between the second and third cockcrow she heard the distant sound of horses’ hoofs. Guided by the sound, she made her way in their direction, lest the noise of their approach should rouse the sleeping household. She soon caught sight of the troop of soldiers, at whose head rode the prince himself, guiding them by the secret marks he had made on the trees when he departed. As soon as he perceived the maiden, he sprang from his horse, lifted her into the saddle, seated himself before her, so that she could cling to him, and then hastened homewards. The moon shone so brightly between the trees that the soldiers could not miss the track. Presently the birds roused up, and began to chirp and twitter in the dawning light. And if the maiden had had time to listen to their p. 218 warnings, they would have profited her more than the honeyed words of her lover, which were all that reached her ear. But she saw and heard nothing but the voice of her lover, who bade her dismiss all idle fears, and to trust in the protection of the soldiers. The sun was already high in the heavens when they left the forest and emerged into the open country. Fortunately the old mother did not discover her daughter’s flight very early in the morning. It was only when she found that the twists of thread had not been wound that she asked what had become of the youngest sister, but no one could inform her. There were many indications to show that she had fled, and the mother immediately devised a crafty plan to punish the fugitive. She went out and gathered a handful of nine1 different sorts of magic herbs, scattered charmed salt over them, and tied up the whole in a bundle. Then she muttered curses and imprecations over the witch-packet, and cast it to the winds, saying—
|“Lend the ball thy wings, O whirlwind!|
Mother of the wind, thy pinions;
Drive the witch’s bundle onward,
p. 219 Let it fly with wind-like swiftness,
Let it scatter death around it,
Let it cast disease beyond it.”
Somewhat before noon the prince and his army arrived on the bank of a broad river, over which a narrow bridge had been thrown, which only permitted the soldiers to pass one by one. The prince was just riding on the middle of the bridge, when the witch’s bundle came flying along, borne by the wind, and attacked his horse like a gadfly. The horse snorted with terror, reared up on his hind-legs, and before any help could be given, the maiden slid from the saddle and fell headlong into the river. The prince would have leaped in after her, but the soldiers seized hold of him and prevented him, for the river was of unfathomable depth, and no human aid could avail to remedy the misfortune which had happened.
The prince was almost distracted with grief and horror, and the soldiers forced him to accompany them home against his will. He lay in a quiet room for weeks mourning over the calamity, and at first refused all food and drink. The king summoned magicians from all quarters, but none of them could discover the nature of the disease p. 220 or suggest any remedy. But one day the son of the wind-sorcerer, who was one of the labourers in the king’s garden, advised, “Send to Finland for the oldest of all magicians, for he is wiser than the magicians of our country.”
When the king heard this, he sent a messenger to the old Finnish sorcerer, who arrived after a week on the wings of the wind. He spoke thus to the king: “Mighty king, the disease which afflicts the prince is caused by the wind. An evil witch-packet has robbed the prince of the half of his heart, and therefore he suffers unceasingly. Send him often into the wind that the wind may bear away his sorrows into the forest.”
He was not wrong, for the health of the prince soon began to improve, his appetite grew better, and he was able to sleep at night. At last he confided the sorrow of his heart to his parents, and his father wished him to seek out another young bride to lead home; but the prince would not listen to the proposal.
The young man had already passed a year in mourning, when one day he happened to come to the bridge where he had lost his betrothed, and bitter tears rose to his eyes at the recollection. p. 221 Suddenly he heard a sweet voice singing, although no living creature was in sight. And the voice sang:
|“By the mother’s curse o’ertaken,|
Sank in flood the hapless maiden,
In the watery grave the fair one,
And in Ahti’s1 waves thy darling.”
The prince dismounted from his horse, and looked round everywhere to see whether some one might not be hidden under the bridge, but he could see no singer anywhere. The only object visible was a water-lily, swaying on the water amid its broad leaves. But a swaying flower could not sing, and there must be something mysterious about it. He tied his horse to a stump on the bank, and sat down on the bridge to listen, hoping that his eyes or ears would give him some solution of the riddle. All was still for a while, but presently the invisible singer sang again:
|“By the mother’s curse o’ertaken,|
Sank in flood the hapless maiden,
In the watery grave the fair one,
And in Ahti’s waves thy darling.”
Sometimes the wind brings a fortunate idea to p. 222 men, and such was the case now. The prince thought, “If I rode alone to the cottage in the wood, who knows but that the gold-spinners might be able to give me some explanation of this wonderful occurrence. He mounted his horse and rode towards the forest. He hoped to find his way easily by the former indications, but the wood had grown, and he rode for more than one day before he could discover the footpath. When he drew near the cottage, he stopped and waited, hoping that one of the maidens would come out. Early in the morning the eldest sister came out to wash her face at the spring. The young man went to her, and told her of the misfortune that had happened on the bridge the year before, and of the song which he had heard there a day or two ago. It happened that the old mother was absent from home, and the maiden invited the prince into the house. As soon as the two girls heard his story, they knew that the misfortune must have been caused by their mother’s witch’s coil, and that their sister was not dead, but only enchanted. The eldest sister inquired, “Did you see nothing on the surface of the water from whence the song might have proceeded?” “Nothing,” replied the p. 223 prince. “As far as my eyes could reach, nothing could be perceived on the surface of the water but a yellow water-lily surrounded by its broad leaves; but leaves and flowers cannot sing.” The maidens immediately suspected that the water-lily could be nothing but their sister, who had fallen into the water, and had been changed into a flower by enchantment. They knew that their old mother had let fly the witch’s coil after the maiden, with her curse, and that if it had not killed her, it might have transformed her into any shape. But they would not tell the prince of their suspicions until they could devise some means for their sister’s release, lest they might inspire him with fruitless hopes. As they did not expect their mother to return home for some days, there was plenty of time to consider the best course to adopt.
In the evening the eldest sister gathered a sufficient quantity of various magic herbs, which she rubbed with flour into a dough; and baked a pie which she gave to the young man to eat before he retired to rest at night. During the night the prince had a wonderful dream. He thought that he was in the wood among the birds, and that he could understand the p. 224 language of them all. In the morning he related his dream to the maidens, and the eldest sister observed, “You have come to us at a fortunate hour, and you have had your dream at a fortunate hour, for it will be fulfilled on your way home. The pork pie which I baked for your welfare yesterday, and gave you to eat, was mixed with magic herbs which will enable you to understand everything which the knowing birds say to one another. These little feathered people are gifted with much wisdom which is unknown to mankind. Turn a sharp ear to whatever their beaks may utter. And when your own time of trouble is over, do not forget us poor children, who sit here at the spinning-wheel as if in an eternal prison.”
The prince thanked the maidens for their kindness, and promised to do his best to release them, either by ransom or by force. He then took leave of them and turned his way homewards. The maidens were pleased to find that the threads were not broken, and still retained their golden lustre, so that their mother would have no cause to reproach them when she returned.
The prince found his ride through the wood p. 225 still more pleasant. He seemed to be surrounded with a numerous company, for the singing and chirping of the birds sounded like articulate words to his ears. He was greatly surprised to find how much wisdom is lost to men who do not understand the language of birds. At first the wanderer was not able to understand clearly what the feathered people were saying, for they were talking of the affairs of various persons who were unknown to him; but suddenly he saw a magpie and a thrush sitting in a tall pine-tree, who were talking about himself.
“How great is the stupidity of men!” said the thrush. “They cannot rightly comprehend the most trifling matter. For a whole year the foster-child of a lame old woman has been sitting near the bridge in the form of a water-lily, lamenting her sad fate in song, but no one has been able to release her. A few days ago her lover was riding over the bridge, and heard her melancholy song, but he was no wiser than anybody else.” The magpie answered, “And yet the maiden was punished by her mother on his account. Unless he is gifted with greater wisdom that falls to the lot of men, she must remain a flower for ever.” “It would be a trifling matter p. 226 to release the maiden,” said the thrush, “if the matter were fully explained to the old magician of Finland. He could easily deliver her from her watery prison and flowery bondage.”
This conversation made the young man thoughtful, and as he rode on, he began to consider what messenger he could send to Finland. Presently he heard one swallow say to another over his head, “Let us go to Finland, where we can build our nests better than here.”
“Stay, friends,” cried the prince in the language of the birds. “Please to convey a thousand compliments from me to the old sorcerer of Finland, and ask him to give me directions how to restore a maiden who has been transformed into a water-lily to her original form.” The swallows promised to fulfil his request, and flew away.
When he came to the bank of the river, he allowed his horse to graze, and remained standing on the bridge, to listen whether he could not hear the song again. But all was still, and he could hear nothing but the rushing of the waters and the sighing of the wind. At last he mounted his horse unwillingly and rode home, but did not p. 227 say a word to any one of his excursion and his adventure.
He was sitting in the garden a week afterwards, and thinking that the swallows must have forgotten his message, when a great eagle circled above him high in the air. The bird gradually descended, and at length alighted on the branch of a lime-tree near the prince, and thus addressed him: “I bring you greetings from the old sorcerer in Finland, who hopes that you will not think ill of him that he did not reply to your message sooner, for he could not find a messenger who was coming this way. It is a very simple matter to disenchant the maiden. You have only to go to the bank of the river, throw off your clothes, and smear yourself all over with mud till not a speck remains white. Then take the tip of your nose between your fingers, and say, ‘Let the man become a crayfish.’ Immediately you will become a crayfish, when you can descend into the river without any fear of being drowned. Squeeze yourself boldly under the roots of the water-lily, and clear them from mud and reeds, so that no portion remains fixed. Then grasp one of the roots with your pincers, and the water will raise you with the flower to the surface. Allow p. 228 yourself to drift with the stream till you see a rowan-tree1 with leafy branches on the left bank. Near the rowan-tree is a rock about as high as a small bath-house. When you reach the rock you must say, ‘Let the water-lily become a maiden and the crayfish a man!’ and it will be accomplished immediately.” When the eagle had delivered his message, he spread his wings, and flew away. The young man looked after him for a time, not knowing what to think of the whole affair.
A week passed by, and found him still undecided, for he had neither courage nor confidence sufficient to undertake such an enterprise. At length a crow said to him, “Why do you neglect to follow the old man’s advice? The old sorcerer has never given false information, and the language of birds never deceives. Hasten to the river, and let the maiden dry your tears of longing.” This gave the young man courage, for he reflected, “Nothing worse can befall me but death, and death is easier than constant weeping.” He mounted his horse and took the well-known path to the banks of the p. 229 river. When he came to the bridge, he could distinguish the song:
|“By my mother’s curse o’ertaken,|
Here I lie in slumber sunken;
Here the youthful maid must languish
On the bosom of the waters,
And the bed is cold and oozy
Where the tender maid is resting.”
The prince dismounted, and hobbled his horse to prevent him from straying too far from the bridge. Then he took off his clothes, and smeared himself over and over with mud, so that no spot remained white. After this, he caught hold of the end of his nose, and jumped into the water, exclaiming, “Let the man become a crayfish.” There was a splash in the water, and then everything became as still as before.
The prince, now transformed into a crayfish, immediately began to disentangle the roots of the water-lily from the bed of the river, but it took him a long time. The roots were firmly fixed in the sand and mud, so that the crayfish had to work for seven whole days before he could complete his task. Then he seized one of the rootlets with his pincers, and the water p. 230 buoyed him up to the surface with the flower. They drifted along slowly with the current, but although there were plenty of trees and bushes on the banks, it was some time before the prince caught sight of the rowan-tree and the rock. At last, however, he spied the tree with its leaves and clusters of red berries on the left bank, and a little farther on stood the rock, which was as high as a small bath-house. Upon this he cried out, “Let the water-lily become a maiden and the crayfish a man.” Then the youth and the maiden swam with their heads above the water. The water bore them to the bank, but they were both mother-naked, as God had created them.
Then said the shame-faced maiden, “Dear youth, I have no clothes to put on, and cannot come out of the water.” But the prince answered, “Go ashore near the rowan-tree, and I will shut my eyes while you climb up and hide yourself under the tree. Then I will hurry to the bridge where I left my horse and my clothes when I plunged into the river.” So the maiden hid herself under the tree, while the prince hurried to the spot where he had left his horse and his p. 231 clothes, but he could find neither one nor the other. He did not know that he had passed so many days in the form of a crayfish, and supposed that he had only spent a few hours in the water. Presently he saw a magnificent chariot with six horses coming slowly along the bank to meet him. In the chariot he found everything needful both for himself and for the maiden whom he had released from her watery prison, as well as an attendant and a lady’s maid. The prince kept the attendant with him, but sent the chariot and the maid with the clothes to the spot where his naked darling was waiting under the rowan-tree. Rather more than an hour elapsed before the coach returned, bringing the maiden attired as a royal bride to the spot where the prince was waiting. He also was richly dressed in wedding robes, and seated himself by her side in the chariot. They drove straight to the city, and stopped before the door of the church. In the church sat the king and queen in black garments, mourning for the loss of their beloved son, who was supposed to have been drowned in the river, for his horse and his clothes had been found on the bank. Great was their joy p. 232 when their lost son appeared before them, accompanied by a beautiful girl, both in wedding attire. The king himself led them to the altar, and they were married. Then a wedding-feast was prepared, which lasted for six whole weeks.
But there is no peace nor rest in the course of time, for days of happiness appear to pass more quickly than hours of trouble. Soon after the wedding, autumn set in, followed by frost and snow, and the young couple did not feel much inclination to leave the house. But when spring returned, the prince and his young consort went to walk in the garden. There they heard a magpie crying out from the summit of a tree, “O what an ungrateful creature to neglect the friends who have helped him so much, in his days of happiness! Must the two poor girls sit spinning gold thread all their lives? The lame old woman is not the mother of the maidens, but a wicked witch who stole them away from a far country when they were children. The old woman has committed many crimes, and deserves no mercy. Let her be punished with boiled hemlock, or she will perhaps direct another witch’s coil against the child who has been rescued.”
This reminded the prince of all that had happened, and he told his consort how he had gone to the cottage in the wood to ask the advice of her sisters, and how the maidens had taught him the language of birds, and he had promised to release them from their servitude. His wife begged him with tears in her eyes to go to the aid of her sisters. When they awoke next morning, she said, “I had an important dream last night. I dreamed that the old mother had left the house, and that the girls were alone. No doubt this would be a good opportunity to go to their aid.”
The prince immediately equipped a troop of soldiers, and led them to the cottage in the wood, where they arrived on the following day. The maidens were alone, as the dream had foreshadowed, and ran out with joyful cries to meet their deliverers. A soldier was ordered to gather hemlock-roots, and to boil them for the punishment of the old woman, so that she should need no more food if she came home, and ate a sufficiency of them. They passed the night in the cottage, and on the following morning set out early on the road with the maidens, so that they reached the town in the evening. Great was the joy of the p. 234 sisters, who had not seen each other for two years.
The old woman returned home the same night, and greedily devoured the food which she found on the table. Then she crept into bed to rest, but she never awoke again, for the hemlock put an end to her wicked life. A week later the prince sent a trusty captain to see how things were going on, when he found the old woman dead. Fifty loads of golden thread were found in the secret chamber, and were divided among the sisters. As soon as the treasure was carried away, the captain sent the red cock on the roof.1 But while the cock was already stretching his red comb out of the smoke-hole, a great cat with fiery eyes clambered down the wall from the roof. The soldiers chased the cat, and soon caught her, when a bird sang from the summit of a tree, “Fix the cat in a trap by her tail, and all will come to light.” The men obeyed.
“Don’t torture me, good people,” said the cat. “I am a human being like yourselves, and have been changed into the shape of a cat by witchcraft, though it was a just return for my wickedness. p. 235 I was the housekeeper in the palace of a great king a long way from here, and the old woman was the queen’s first chambermaid. We were led by avarice to plot together secretly to steal the king’s three daughters and a great treasure, and then to make our escape. After we had contrived to make away with all the golden vessels, which the old woman changed into golden flax, we took the children, when the eldest was three years old, and the youngest six months. The old woman was afraid that I might repent and change my intentions, so she transformed me into a cat. Her death loosed my tongue, but I did not recover my former shape.” When the captain heard this, he answered, “you deserve no better fate than the old woman,” and ordered her to be thrown into the fire.
It was not long before the two elder princesses married kings’ sons, like their youngest sister, and the golden thread which they had spun in the cottage in the wood provided them with rich dowries. But they never discovered their parents, nor the place of their birth. It was reported that the old woman had buried many more loads of golden thread in the ground, but no one could find the spot.
1 “These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes.”—George MacDonald, “The Light Princess.”
1 Compare the scene with the four Grey Women in the second part of Faust.
1 Nine is a mystical number as well as seven.
1 Ahti, the God of the Waters.
1 A sacred tree in Eastern Europe, as it is in the British Isles.
1 See page 108.